mandarin chinese grammar patterns structures

13 Mandarin Chinese Grammar Patterns and Structures We Love to Hate

The conventional wisdom is that Mandarin Chinese grammar is easy.

After all, the hard parts are Chinese tones, characters, and chengyu, right?

If you’re no longer a newbie, you might be cursing that conventional wisdom right now.

Because we all know that intermediate or advanced Chinese grammar is actually really hard.

Here are tips on Chinese grammar patterns and structures that I wish I’d heard when I started learning Chinese grammar.


Why Chinese Grammar Patterns and Structures Are So Hard

Before digging in, let’s discuss some of the reasons why Chinese grammar is difficult.

First, the word order in a sentence is different from English, and this requires getting used to. (But not always – here is a simple introduction to some Chinese sentence structures).

Second, there are new concepts that have no real counterpart in English (eg. 了) – and these can throw you in for a loop because there is no analogue.

Third, there are Chinese grammar patterns and structures which seem to be deceivingly similar. It’s easy to think they’re interchangeable. But they’re not!

Unfortunately, memorizing Mandarin Chinese grammar rules tends to require a lot of discipline and trial and error (and enduring tons of Chinese grammar exercises).

Perhaps this blog post can help with that. Perhaps it can be a sort of Chinese grammar guide for those of you just starting out.

And just so you know, for the sake of (relative) brevity, this post only addresses the most common usages of these grammar words.

We’ve tried to distill the essence of what you need to know.

Without further ado, here we go…

Common Chinese Grammar Structures for 的 (de) vs. 得 (de) vs. 地(de)

They even sound the same! How can words be so similar, without meaning the same thing?

It boils down to this main difference: 的 is used with nouns and 得 is used with verbs. The last one, 地, is mainly used to modify verbs (like the “ly” in English).

1. Noun + 的 + Noun

Possessive words (my, your, her, his, our, their, etc.) don’t directly translate into one word in Chinese, you add 的 to the end of the pronoun (I – 我) to make it possessive (My – 我+的).

For example:

wǒ de shū
my book

2. Attribute + 的 + Noun

When 的 is used between an attribute and noun, it gives the noun the attribute:

hěn piàoliang de lǎoshī
pretty teacher

3. Verb + 得 + State

This particle is used after a verb and indicates effect, degree, possibility, etc:

fēi de kuài
to fly quickly

4. Adj + 地 + Verb

This particle is mainly used as an adverb, like “ly” in English. It’s used before a verb.

For example:

màn màn de zǒu
to walk slowly

5. Adj + 地 + Adj

地 can also be used to modify/qualify an adjective:

tè bié de zhēn guì
Particularly precious

Common Chinese Grammar Patterns for 吗 (ma) vs. 吧 (ba) vs. 呢 (ne)

So maybe your mind was blown when you first heard about question words – words which convert sentences into questions when they’re placed at the end of a sentence.

Now you have more question words than you know what to do with. How should you distinguish between them?

In short, 吗 is for yes-no questions. 吧 is for making suggestions or requests. 呢 is for shifting the conversation to another topic or the other person.

6. Clause +  吗

It might be helpful to think of this as the equivalent of a question mark. The answer to a 吗 question should be yes or no (or to be more precise, confirm or negate the verb).

For example:

nǐ huì shuō zhōng wén ma?
Can you speak Chinese?

7.  Clause + 吧

Unlike 吗 or 呢, 吧 doesn’t always indicate a question. It’s commonly used when making a suggestion or request. Much like “how about…” or “let’s…” in English.

However, you can also add it to the end of a statement, and it suggests that you’re seeking confirmation (like “…right?” in English):

wǒ men chū qù chī fàn ba
How about we go eat? (or lets go eat!)

8.  Clause + 呢

呢 is a great way to shift the conversation to another topic, or the other person.

Answers to a 呢 question don’t have to be a simple yes or no (unlike 吗), and can be more open ended. The English equivalent is “and…” or “and what about…”

For example:

wǒ guò de hěn hǎo, nǐ ne
I‘ve been well, you?

Common Chinese Grammar Patterns for 会 (huì) vs. 能 (néng)

So 会 and 能 both mean “can,” but they don’t mean the same thing. What’s the difference?

The bottom line: 会 is for learned knowledge or the future. 能 is for physical ability, and for indicating permission. 

9. 会 + Verb

会 most commonly means “can” or “able to,” specifically for learned knowledge. Use it for acquired skills, not abilities which you were born with.

For example:

Tā huì zuò fàn
He can cook

会 is also often used for “will”, or “will be”:

nǐ huì qù ma?
Will you go?

10. 能 + Verb

Use 能 to indicate that you’re physically able to do something or complete a task.

Nǐ néng bāng wǒ yī gè máng 吗?
Can you help me for a minute?

Unlike 会 (but similar to 可以) 能 can also mean “be allowed to” or “may do.”

zài shì nèi bù néng chōu yān
Smoking not allowed inside

Common Chinese Grammar Patterns for 想 (xiǎng) vs. 觉得 (juéde)

想 and 觉得 both mean to think or feel, so what’s the difference?

想 is most commonly used to casually express that you want to do something. 觉得 is mainly used to express your opinion about something.

11. 想 + Verb

Use 想 when you feel like (doing something):

wǒ xiǎng chī dōngxi
I want to eat something.

12. 觉得 + Verb

Use 觉得 when you’re expressing your opinion about something.

wǒ juéde hěn hǎo chī
I think it tastes good.

Common Chinese Grammar Patterns for 了

Finally, we’re at 了, the most frustrating Chinese grammar pattern that I’ve personally ever learned.

了 is used to indicate the completion of an action, or a change of circumstances.

13. Verb + 了

了 is mainly used in 2 situations. First, it’s placed after a verb (or occasionally adjective) to indicate completion of an action, which usually indicates the past tense. (It’s also important to note that there are cases when it is used to indicate the expected completion of an action – in that case it’s not necessarily past tense.)

wǒ chī le fàn yǐ hòu yào chū qù
After I’m done eating, I want to go out

Aside from signaling the completion of a specific verb, when 了 is added to the end of a sentence, it that a new state exists.

wǒ è le
I’m hungry (I wasn’t hungry before, but now I am.)


Other Resources for Learning Mandarin Chinese Grammar Patterns and Structures

This post is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Chinese grammar. Practice is key to internalizing grammar. Here are my favorite resources:

Chinese Grammar Wiki: by the one and only John Pasden and his consultancy, All Set Learning. 1,645 articles, carefully written and constantly growing. beautifully designed site by Hugh Grigg and Amanda Wang. They tackle the most common Chinese grammar questions and break them down into small, digestible topics that make sense.

FluentU: This website and app also offers a library of videos from real Chinese media where you can see grammar structures in action. All the video clips have interactive subtitles which show translations and more in-context usage examples to improve comprehension. FluentU also provides flashcards and interactive quizzes to keep everything you come across in your head. 

The sooner you start practicing the better!

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